look!” Chloe announced when they appeared that second time. “I remember them.” Her face glowed with an endearing
smile, reminiscent of their father’s when he was happy rather than in the mood to hurl thunderbolts. “They were
so cute before.”
“Cute?” Attie snorted. “He killed her if I recall.”
“No, technically she killed herself,” Chloe corrected. “He didn’t mean to do it.”
With a dreamy sigh she added, “And he remembered her forever.”
Attie cocked a scornful eyebrow at her youngest sibling’s fanciful tone. “He remembered her another
fifty years. Then he died, too. That’s hardly forever, little sister.”
“It was forever to him,” Chloe persisted. She studied the pattern emerging as the tale began to
progress across the loom, assisted by the third sister’s expert weaving. “Will they be together this time?”
“Long enough to introduce themselves, you mean?” Attie teased her grumpily, but smirked with concealed
good-humor as Chloe stuck her tongue out.
Lexie paused in her work to assess the design. “Hmmm, perhaps, though I don’t see how just yet.”
“He’s going to be ten years older than her,” Chloe noted. “That’s not so much,
even for humans.”
“It’s not,” Lexie agreed, “But he’s here,” she pointed with her bobbin,
“and she’s about to be born over here…That’s a lot of geography in human terms…” She made a few deft passes with her bobbin - short rows to her and her sisters, several
years by mortal reckoning - and paused again. “Yes…it wasn’t my original design, but now I see how it’s
possible. Look there, down on that riverbank.” She gestured toward one thread, then another. “And there; see the
ships?” Chloe nodded eagerly. “It’s the ships that will bring them together,” Lexie foretold, “the
ships and a dash of childish curiosity.” She smiled as her younger sister leaned in closely to observe the outcome.
Only Attie was unamused. She turned away to sharpen her shears, no longer attentive to the unfolding drama of
the two lovers. The long dragon boats approaching the town meant only one thing to her; that many threads must be cut and
many creatures breathe their last before the story could proceed.
The brother and sister had left home early, following the river out of town then clambering up one of the hills
above to make their plan. Really, the only plan the boy had was to figure out how to make his little sister go back home instead
of traipsing around after him. He was to meet his friends later and didn’t need the hindrance of a girl, least of all
his sister. The problem was she was clever for a girl; she had overheard him and his friends discussing their strategy for
this day and threatened to tell their mother everything if he didn’t let her come. He would have to be cleverer than
she was to get rid of her.
She pulled bread and cheese from her apron pocket and they sat on the grass to eat their morning meal. The June
day was clear and bright, not yet too warm for comfort. “What do you think they will do if they catch us?” she
asked her brother. The triumph she’d felt about besting him in the dispute to tag along was waning; she was a good child
at heart and didn’t tend to be a troublemaker or venture into places where she didn’t belong.
“Who?” he asked. “The witches or mother and father?”
She had meant the witches, but his mention of their parents reminded her of where they were supposed to be today
on the Festival of St. John. They were meant to be in church, all day, all the long day, not lying in wait to spy on the pagans
as they worshipped at their midsummer bonfires. Father was likely to say how disappointed he was with them; mother was likely
to show them. Involuntarily, she winced. “Any of them, I guess.”
Seeing his sister’s growing unease and hoping it would be the beginning of her absence, the boy shrugged
with feigned nonchalance. “Well, I imagine the witches will kill us and eat us. I think mother and father will just
He grinned as he saw a frown cross the girl’s face, but it wasn’t because of his words. She wriggled up her nose. “Do you smell smoke?”
Had they been gazing down river, toward the sea, they might have seen the ships approach. Had the breeze been
blowing in the opposite direction, they might have smelled the smoke an hour sooner. Neither detail would have made any difference.
Their father was a successful merchant and their house was in one of the finer parts of the city. It had been
ransacked when they reached it, though not yet put to the torch. It had taken nearly all afternoon to work their way back,
alternately hiding behind walls, then scampering in short bursts, sometimes crawling on their hands and knees over the dead
that lay in the streets and narrow alleyways. As the boy surveyed the wreckage that had been their home, he wondered why he
had dragged himself and his sister back to this. What had he thought he could do? There was little to salvage and as the sounds
of pillaging and murder continued in the streets, he knew they would never make it back beyond the gates to safety.
“We have to find mother and father,” his sister told him tearfully. “Our sister and brothers.”
She began to cry.
“We have to try and save ourselves,” he snapped at her. “It’s what they would want us
to do.” More specifically, they’d expect him to be a man and protect his sister. That was what he knew they’d
want; he just hadn’t phrased it very well. She was close to panicking and he wasn’t far behind, but he couldn’t
let her see that. His sharp blue eyes raced again through the debris of normal life in an effort to find anything that might
help them. To his amazement, his gaze settled on their mother’s good sewing scissors, so precious a commodity to her
that none of them, not even father, was allowed to borrow or even touch them without her permission. Now they lay discarded
on the floor, all but hidden by shattered dishes and broken bits of furniture. He couldn’t defend them with sewing scissors,
but maybe he could do something…His eyes fell upon his sister. “Come here,” he demanded.
She stumbled toward him, tears flowing freely. Her confused terror grew as she saw her brother raise the scissors.
Roughly, he jerked her against him and stared deeply into her eyes so there would be no mistaking the urgency
of his words. “You do exactly what I say. Understand?”
Nodding her obedience, but more afraid than ever as she realized her older brother was just as frightened as
she was, she listened to his instructions.
Outside, the noise of destruction was escalating.
Their ages saved them. Too young or too old, they would have been judged useless and slain without further thought.
As it was they were both perfectly placed to provide many estimated years of good service. Saved from death but doomed to
months of incarceration, they heard over and over from fellow prisoners of the horrors of the Norsemen’s attack: how
the cathedral itself had been stormed, the bishop killed in front of the altar, all the clergy and most of the congregation
murdered where they prayed. They could only assume the rest of their family had died there in the church for they never saw
any of them again. And when they were sick of hearing the tales, when their spirits were already sunk as low as they thought
possible, when they believed things could not get worse, they were herded like livestock onto the dreaded longboats. Then
the ships raised sail, and they learned they were bound for the slave market at Duib Linn.
With a groan he began to stretch, feeling far older than his five and twenty years. Today was one of those days
when every battle scar he carried seemed to ache with an innate knowledge of the approaching change of season. At least the
steam had sweated most of last night’s revelry from his pores; if it could do something for the wooly feeling in his
head that would be a fine thing, too. Then again, since he intended to get just as drunk tonight, if not drunker, it probably
He’d been away from the family farm more than three years. Three years of successful privateering in the
spring and summer, three years of boring winter quartering in Britain. Lately something told him it was time to go home, to
enjoy the clean snows of the north; probably just as boring, but he was ready for a change.
His homecoming had not been dull. Last night, before, during and after tankard upon tankard of mead and stories
shared of victories won and lost, he had worked his way through three of the slave girls and, with the prior consent of his
sibling, his younger brother’s favorite concubine. He thought he’d been with one of them more than once and he’d
woken with two of them in his bed. How that had happened he didn’t remember, which was a shame. Tonight, he planned
on much the same.
But first, because he had promised her, he would sit awhile and speak with his mother. The very idea set off
the pounding in his head all over again. Not that he didn’t adore the woman, but she was the most willful female he
had ever known. She had been most specific; she would leave him to his own pursuits
the first night, but the second he would give her an hour or so of his time. Period. He stretched again and roused himself
from the steam bath. He didn’t begrudge the request. If he was going to spend the winter here, he needed to reacquaint
himself with the farm’s requirements and with all who lived on her. Might as well
make a start now.
“Everything seems in good repair,” he observed as he stretched himself before the central fire.
“Profits on the herds and crops are undiminished?”
“Yes, we have been lucky,” his mother agreed. “Though I am surprised to hear you say you noticed
anything yesterday…or that you remember it,” she teased softly.
With a roll of his eyes he told her, “My observations were made in the afternoon. I remember that.”
“Ah,” was all she said.
He laughed at her subtlety. “Tomorrow I would have Aoalraor show me about, remind me of all that must
be done around here in the winter months…Where is the old man keeping himself? I have not seen him since I returned.”
She made no immediate comment and he saw the shadow cross her face and felt the shift of mood. He should have known. “What
She plotted her words. She had no desire to become teary-eyed all over again, but she still felt the loss of
her old friend and his absence reminded her daily that she was getting older, too. “Last spring,” she began. “A
dog startled one of the horses while Aoalraor was putting him into harness…the horse kicked…”
He had trouble grasping the tale. Aoalraor had been with their family as long as he could remember, he was…constant.
As a child he had followed the patient servant around the farm, asking questions, getting underfoot. The man’s very
name meant ‘noble counsel’ and indeed, he had learned as much from the old man about nobility as he’d learned
from his own father about courage. “But he has been kicked by horses before,” he tried to argue.
“He was younger then, and able to jump out of the way,” she explained gently. “This time the
horse kicked in the side of his head. He was gone before we reached him.”
The blunt explanation struck hard and made him notice the procession of gray in her hair, the lines beginning
to navigate her face, reminded him they had all been younger once. “I had meant…” He stopped; there was
no point to finishing the sentence. He’d been going to say that on this trip home he meant to give the old man his freedom.
It was something his father had meant to do, but hadn’t done before he himself had died. As the oldest son, at least
the oldest surviving son, it was his right to grant such a boon to one who had shown such loyalty. He had planned that when
the time came, the old fellow would die a free man, a family slave no more.
Sigrid watched the emotions play across the face of her son, her fourth born child, and now her oldest boy.
She knew what he’d been going to say and she loved him for it. She had loved all her children equally but differently,
and for different reasons.
This one she loved because he was so like his father. All who had witnessed it swore that he, like his father
before, was a fearsome sight in battle. An enemy who crossed swords with him quickly came to regret it. He was fast to anger
and faster to avenge a wrong. But at home, he was civil and laughed easily, and he was always respectful of her. All her sons
had been respectful of her, their father had seen to that. But this one was missing the one thing his father had that made
him able to be just as content at home as he was when on campaign: someone special, someone who gave him a reason to come
Sigrid and her husband had begun their years together in an arranged marriage, as all marriages were, but their
union had ripened to one of love. Together they had known passion, not mere coupling for the sake of child production. She
wanted that experience for this son, and she wanted it before, she, too, departed this life. She wanted to see him smile at
someone with love.
Her other surviving children were pleased enough with their spouses and even this son had once had a wife. She’d
been a lovely girl from a well-placed family. The match had been a good one, socially. He had treated her well, and with kindness,
but he’d not loved her. When she died in childbed four years previous, he had dutifully done all that was expected,
but he’d not been heartbroken. He’d barely been home since, but that wasn’t due to mourning his mother knew.
It was restlessness, wanderlust…and a search for someone or something he couldn’t seem to find.
With a sigh he interrupted her thoughts, “Next time I visit Duib Linn I will look for someone to help
take Aoalraor’s place. It will not be the same, but…”
His mother smiled. Fast as that, he had given her the opening she’d been seeking. “Hmm, well the
next time you go purchasing servants, I hope you will make an effort to be sober.”
He laughed in surprise at her change of tone. “I do not take your meaning.”
“No? Then perhaps your eyes are failing you, my son. Or perhaps they classify servants most strangely
at the market. I would not know as I have never been.”
Now he was confused; maybe he was still hung-over. “My wits are not up to clever conversation tonight,
mother. State what you mean.”
“Do you remember the batch of servants you sent here three years ago?”
He pressed three fingers to his still throbbing temple. Apparently she would proceed at her own pace. “Of
course. My memory is not yet failing.” He paused, recalling. “There was the girl who had experience as a dairy
“Possibly she did,” his mother broke in, “but no experience with our climate. She caught a
chill and died the first winter.”
“I will have her replaced,” he said tiredly.
“No need.” She waved away the suggestion. “The field workers have all been quite useful. And
then,” her voice assumed a tone of prompting, “there was that scrawny child you included in the group.”
His expression turned inscrutable. “Oh, yes, that boy…” His voice trailed away. The purchase
of the child had been an afterthought, almost a whim. Pale and thin, the boy didn’t look as though he would be sturdy
enough for much. But he had bought the child anyway out of…he hated to admit the weakness in himself, but he had done
it as a mercy. The child had looked so frightened, and he had the most haunting green eyes, the same color as the North Sea
in summertime. From the way his mother sounded, he guessed the boy had not survived the first winter either. A pity. “What
happened to him?”
“We-ll…he was quite witless as a goat herd or at milking
cows…Truly anything out of doors was a hopeless task…But…she…has
become a respectable cook and…she…is very accomplished at sewing. Her
embroidery is most skillful. And she is proving adept with medicinal herbs.” Sigrid paused and waited for her words
to sink in.
His mouth hung slightly open and he had to form a conscious thought to close it again. “You are saying…”
“I am saying you sent me a girl, not a boy.”
“That is…but…that,” he faltered. Though he was surprised, what did it matter since his
mother seemed to be pleased? “Fine…Where is this girl, then?”
Sigrid smiled an ambiguous smile. “I thought you might wish to meet her. I sent her along to your bedcloset
while you were at the bath. She is waiting for you.”
He was suddenly repulsed. “Mother! In the name of Odin, she’s a child! My tastes may be expansive
where females are concerned, but I have no interest in infants.”
She was unruffled. “Calm yourself. Do you believe I would encourage you to compromise a child? You have
not seen her in what? More than three years since you sent her here? I promise you my son, she is no child.”
He rubbed at the space between his brows where the hammering in his head was returning. All he could picture
was the malnourished child, clad as a boy and trembling so hard it made his teeth chatter…her teeth…as he, she,
was placed onboard the ship to begin the voyage to the farm. “I do not…I will…” He sputtered to a
halt. He didn’t know what to say to any of it.
“As nearly as she and I can reckon it, she has reached her fifteenth year. She is already older than most
girls when they become brides. I was fourteen when I wed your father.” Sigrid studied her son’s face, a blend
of confusion and anger sharing equal space. “Are you not a little curious?”
“I do not know quite what I am,” he retorted gruffly. He
tried to remember more about her. “Was she not Frankish or some such thing? I know she could not speak with me before,
or she would not.”
“She has had over three years to learn our tongue. She is all but fluent. She is clever and brave and
I have grown most fond of her. Even if she is not to your liking, I will not send her away.” Really, his reticence was
beginning to irritate her. “She has also become quite a beauty…Honestly, I have never known you to be so timid
about meeting a girl, my son.”
“It is not timidity…and when did you become such a matchmaker?”
“Since I decided this girl has what it takes to make you happy,” she responded plainly, as though
that made all the difference. For Sigrid, it did. “I do want you to be careful of her; she is a virgin. I verified that
In another moment, his head would explode. He would need a great quantity of mead tonight to chase this conversation
from his mind. Virgins had never ranked highly in his estimation. His late wife, of course, had been such on their wedding
night and that had made the evening more of a chore than a pleasant pursuit. With an irritated sigh he rose from his spot
before the fire. “Here is what I will do. I will go in and introduce myself. I will even allow her time to do the same.
Then I will send her back out here to you so that I may begin to enjoy my evening. Since you are as fond of her of her as
you say, the two of you may spend the rest of the night speaking about what you think I need.”
His voice had steadily risen in anger but Sigrid answered with an unconcerned nod. “We will see.”
He slammed through the door and slammed it closed again before turning toward her, ready to tell her anything
to get her out of his chamber as swiftly as possible…when all thoughts, but of a pair of sea-green eyes framed by blonde
locks and milky skin, left his brain. His mother had said she had become a beauty; that had been a grievous understatement,
like saying their Norse winters were chilly or that water was damp.
She had been perched upon his bed; it was the only piece of furniture in the small space on which to sit. His
sudden entrance made her hop off abruptly and now she teetered in front of him, just off-balance enough to be utterly engaging
and gazing at him with understandable shyness…but she didn’t appear afraid.
He cleared his throat and rediscovered his voice. “You have grown since last I saw you.”
“I am taller, I imagine.”
Her voice was melodic, inviting and, his mother had been correct; her inflection of his native tongue was near
perfect. Near perfect, just like the rest of her.
“You are not so skinny as you were,” he smiled.
She looked slightly offended. “I am not fat.”
He chuckled. “No, no…what I meant was…” What he had been thinking was that now she was
not too thin in all the best possible places. “I meant to say that you have grown very beautiful.” He watched
the shy look return.
He stepped nearer and raised a hand to gently touch her cheek. “Are you quite certain you want to be here
with me like this?” Why he’d asked that, he didn’t know. He liked his partners obliging, but he didn’t
remember ever bothering to ask the question before; he’d never had to ask.
His touch made her tremble inside, which she hoped didn’t show. In answer, she shrugged and looked away.
“I am a purchased servant. My only opportunity for marriage would be with another servant and only if you allowed it.
I know I cannot be your legal wife, but to be your concubine would be advantageous.” Her eyes had not returned to his.
It was stark truth. The caste system of Nordic culture was rigid. He fingered the slave’s collar she wore
about her neck, then lifted her chin to make her look at him again. “Those are my mother’s words.”
She nodded agreement. “But she is not wrong.”
He felt as though he could happily melt right into her eyes. “No, she is not wrong. But…what do
you want?” He couldn’t believe he had asked this either. She was a servant, bought and paid for and if he wanted
her in his bed he didn’t need her permission. He could have her first himself and still find her a willing husband amongst
the other servants if that’s what she wanted. His entire body ached to
take her before another moment passed. He wanted her badly, wanted to make her his and no one else’s but…he wanted
her to want that, too.
His second question was more difficult, not because she didn’t know the answer, but because she wanted
so much not to look foolish, nor to remind him too clearly of the terrified child he had last seen. She couldn’t tell
him that when she had first and last seen him, she had loved him even then though she was not quite twelve. She didn’t
know why; it wasn’t just that he was handsome in a rugged warrior kind of way and it wasn’t his blue, blue eyes,
though she loved his eyes. It was more what was in his eyes…weariness and wit and something that felt familiar and safe
and right. Maybe it was just that he had been kind to her, had given her food and water after he bought her, told her not
to be so afraid. She hadn’t understood his words at the time, but she had grasped his meaning and hung on to the gentleness
he showed her.
“I already know your kindness, so you are not a stranger to me,” she whispered. “You saved
me. I want to be here with you, yes. I am certain.”
Had she revealed a blade and plunged it into his heart, he could not have felt more staggered. With greater
control than he felt, he raised a hand to one shoulder of her chemise, the only garment she wore, and asked, “May I
see you?” He could discern her form through the layer of fine wool, but he longed for the details.
A bashful nod from her and, together they pulled it over her head. For a moment, he couldn’t feel his
knees. “I was wrong before when I only called you beautiful,” he whispered. “You would make goddesses envious.”
Flickering light from the oil lamps seemed to bounce off her skin; the paleness that had been mostly pallor three years past
had become an enticing glow. Even if he had seen her without clothing then and known her gender, he would never have expected
her to blossom into the vision he saw before him.
His eyes were still reveling in her form as he noticed her open her mouth, then close it again, her teeth biting
half her lower lip. “You have something to say?”
She nodded and the words spilled out. “May I not see you, too?”
He laughed at the innocent candor. “That would be fair,” he agreed. He removed his undertunic then
stripped off his boots. As he removed his trousers, he observed her face. He was already hard and knew his size to be notable.
Always he’d considered that fortunate, but just now he wanted nothing to intimidate her or make her regret her decision.
She did give a small gasp as he unveiled himself, then her head tilted to one side in frank appraisal. He wished it were possible
to capture and keep an image of the startled, yet intrigued, expression on her face.
It was not the first she had seen of the naked male form. She had once had five brothers; the differences between
her body and a man’s were not a revelation. But this was…fascinating. She had never seen one so ready for its
task. As she stared, she could see it actually move as though it had its own mind.
Unable to conceal an amused smile, he put out his hand and she took it with one of hers. With him guiding her,
they slipped onto the bed.
He laid her back and leaned over her and she gave another gasp. She had been so preoccupied at the sight of
his sex she had not studied anything else. Her eyes went wide at a jagged scar that ran from back to front of his right shoulder
and continued part way cross his chest. It was old, long turned white, and her fingers traced its course.
“It was not as bad as it looks,” he told her.
“It looks like it nearly removed your head,” she whispered in concern.
“But it did not.” He had given the wound no notice since it healed.
Her fingers continued their curious mapping of his skin. He lay back and drew her with him so that she was leaning
over him in the dominant position. She looked confused; he took her hand and placed it against his chest to let her know further
examination was welcome.
Taking the hint, she ran her fingers through the dark chest hair, feeling the heat of his skin, the rhythm of
his heart. Over his shoulders and arms she went, discovering a second old and vicious-looking scar on the outside of his right
arm, his sword arm. She shot him another quizzical look.
“Also not as bad as it looks,” he assured.
She seemed doubtful but made no comment. Her hand grazed lower, over his flat belly and down one thigh. She
was not yet brave enough to touch that part of him which thoroughly engaged her thoughts. She wasn’t sure he would want
her to touch it.
He was suddenly grateful for having spent the previous night as he had, dissipated though it may have been.
Otherwise, he would not have been so patient tonight. By now he would have grasped her hand and placed it on his member, taught
her how to stroke him, how to please him. As it was, he was having trouble biting back instructions.
She had meanwhile found yet a third scar on his left leg. Arching a disapproving eyebrow at him she asked, “Also
not as bad as it looks?”
He hesitated. “No, that one was bad,” he admitted. “A lot of blood, it became infected, took
weeks to heal.” At one point he had thought it would turn gangrenous and cause him to lose the leg if not his life.
That one, courtesy of a Moorish dagger on one of the Andalusian campaigns, had been a near thing.
Her frown deepened. “You should learn to take more care,” she scolded.
Cupping her face in his hand, he let his fingers comb through her hair. “Perhaps I have needed someone
to do that for me,” he murmured.
His words made her heart flutter but she had none in response lest she betray her feelings too openly. Instead
she let them embolden her investigations. He had objected to nothing she’d touched so far and she was profoundly curious.
Perhaps he would not protest if she was very precise.
Her hand had found its mark at last but the involuntary moan he gave made her pull it swiftly away. Just as
swiftly, he grabbed it and put it back, closing her fingers around him to give her the general idea…and…oh, by
all the gods, she learned fast. She stroked him, caressed him, sketched trails along the paths of veins. Though he had wanted
her to do exactly this, he couldn’t take much of it. A few minutes more and he would explode all over them.
He stopped her, pushed her to her back and once more loomed over her. In every other situation with every other
woman he’d known, he would have entered her immediately. But he found himself wanting to prolong this, to see if he
could elicit a few moans of pleasure from her before claiming her.
Lightly as he could, he traced his fingers down her neck, circling the hollow of her throat, then between her
breasts, feeling the hammering of her heart. Never had he felt such soft skin, and the contrast between his sun-tanned fingers
and her chest was captivating. Carefully, he cupped one of her breasts in his hand, brushing his thumb across the pink tip.
To his delight, a tiny noise, like the stifled chirp of a bird escaped her as she bit her lower lip. He continued to play
with her breasts using only the faintest touch of his fingers. Then, with a reassuring grin, he lowered his head and began
to use his mouth. This time the noise she made was not so tiny.
Of course she knew the role of breasts when it came to infants; she did not know a man might do this, too, but
it was a wonderful lesson. Already she was eager to know what else he would teach her this night, though she didn’t
know what could feel better than the way he was suckling at her. Too soon, he stopped and raised his head to stare into her
He began to venture lower with his hand, watching her every reaction. His fingers slipped down her torso and
over her belly. Even that simple act made her utter a muted sigh of anticipation. Questing fingers dipped between her thighs
and a growl of satisfaction rumbled in the back of his throat as he felt the willingness of her body. One finger, then two,
moved ever so slowly inside making her shudder. With his thumb he began to rub her on the outside, not truly knowing what
to expect, only that he wanted to find out where all the little sighs would lead.
She had been conscious and embarrassed of the dampness between her legs but he seemed to approve so she determined
to worry about it no further, especially as his actions were only making it worse. His hand took control, fingers on her,
in her, insistent and forceful, gentle and careful. A mild fluttering began under his hand that was familiar and not, just
as demanding, but elusive. It ebbed and flowed, drifted close, then darted away. She found she needed to concentrate on it
to make it continue, to reach toward it with her mind. His fingers moved faster.
He felt it begin. A spasm of inner muscles, a spontaneous movement of her hips toward his hand. Certainly he
had been the cause of such reactions in women before, but always during the act itself and randomly at best; never with such
direct intent on his part. She gripped him hard, her breathing fast and shallow, then her eyes closed, her body tensed and
the little inner spasms became tight clenches around his fingers.
It seemed to go on forever or what she could imagine of forever. She was just beginning to sink back into the
coziness of his bed from whatever cloud she’d been riding when she felt him probing, seeking to enter her at last. Opening
her eyes she saw such desire and need etched upon his face it made her want to cry. In another moment she would cry and she
didn’t want him to see her weakness. She could never have believed a worldly man, a hardened warrior, and one she loved
already, could look at her so. She closed her eyes again.
Never had he wanted a woman so much. He was almost in pain from the fire in his body. He had never seen a sight
as beautiful as the one he had just witnessed as she gave herself to him freely, lost in sensations that he had given her.
He could wait no longer. “Open your eyes,” he instructed.
She was still afraid he would see too much, too deeply, but she did as he asked. The raw emotions that had been
upon his face had made their way to his own eyes and left them shimmering. Tenderly, she placed a hand upon his cheek, her
thumb reaching to brush his lips.
He thrust into her, surging past the barrier that was already stretched near its breaking point by his fingers.
She arched up toward him and he lay still and held her close, whispering against her ear. As she relaxed, she pulled away,
far enough to where each again could view the other’s eyes.
No other man would ever see this, would ever have her like this. If he had his way, no other man would ever
know her. Sea green depths welcomed him in to stay and her lips beckoned him to claim them, too. He had never been much for
kissing on the mouth; always it seemed to convey more intimacy than he felt. Now he had no verbal skills to express what he
was feeling, not that he could have conversed anyway. In lieu of speech, he lowered his mouth to hers, pressing, sliding,
teaching her how to kiss even as he learned himself.
His lips were pushing then pulling at hers, his tongue seeking entry to join their mouths just as their bodies
were joined. This was as new as everything else and just as intriguing. His pace was quickening to the point of urgency and
to her surprise, brought a return of that funny, glorious fluttering from before despite the pain she still felt with his
She was beginning to enjoy it, he could tell. Unfortunately, that realization made it impossible for him to
hold back. He released hard, his motions almost frantic as he felt the inner twitches of her body. Collapsing on top of her,
he was already resolved to perform better for her next time. Raising his head, he was about to explain when he saw there was
no need. Her eyes showed him nothing but acceptance, wonder and…trust.
“Is it always so?” she asked. Her voice was soft and still breathless.
It was an oddly difficult question. Honesty would have him confess no, it was not; not always, and in fact had
never been so satisfying for him. But would that make her disappointed in the next time before they even reached the next
time? Carefully he withdrew from her, rolled to his back and nudged her against his side before he answered. “I think
it was special because you are special.” The shy expression she had first worn reasserted itself, but he saw that he
had pleased her with his answer.
He tucked a lock of long blonde hair away from her face. Normally, female slaves were compelled to wear their
hair as short as the males. His mother had obviously allowed and probably encouraged an exception. Something else he would
thank Sigrid for…in the morning. “What is your name?” The thought occurred to him he didn’t know it.
With a smile, she told him, and, unable to prevent herself, giggled at his attempts to get his mouth around
the Frankish pronunciation. Three times he tried it; all three dismal failures.
“I will practice,” he told her with a frown, but his eyes were smiling.
The oil lamps began to sputter. “Where would you have me sleep?” she asked. If she was to return
to her pallet on her sleeping bench, she preferred to do it with some light. When there was no moon the inside of the longhouse
could be blacker than the night.
“I would like you to sleep here, but you may sleep where you please.” He was glad when he saw her
smile widen and watched her settle beside him, using his chest for a pillow. In the next moment she shivered and he pulled
the bed’s thick sheepskins up around them both. “Better?”
She nodded silently against his chest. He stroked her hair and asked, “Speak to me awhile. Tell me how
you came to be in the market.”
With hesitation, she did. As she spoke, he began to regret he’d asked to hear it but he did not stop her.
She recounted what she knew of the destruction of her town and the loss of her family. She told him of imprisonment and hunger,
the ships’ voyage, the arrival at the market. Her voice quivered only once; when she spoke of her brother whose plan
of disguising her as a boy had saved at least some of her dignity. He had taken ill before they were put onto the ship. The
trip had made him worse. He had died in her arms in the market cell where they had been kept just days before her purchase.
She didn’t know what had been done with his body, only that it had been pulled from her embrace while she cried and
begged them not to take him.
When she finished, he was silent. As a boy he had sometimes asked the servants about their lives but he had
never been offered so much detail. It was the first time he could remember putting himself in another’s position and
seeing things from a different point of view…and the view disturbed him. Though Norse women were noted for their toughness,
he fervently hoped neither his mother nor his sisters would ever see the things that she had. “I am sorry,” he
She looked puzzled. “You were not there. You did not do it,” she responded with simple logic.
“But all of it was done by men like me,” he told her. “Had I been there that day, I would
have behaved as the rest of them. You should not think me better than I am. It will make disappointment come too easily.”
She was gazing at him with shrewd assessment as the last lamp burned out, leaving them in darkness. When she
spoke again, he was amazed. “Perhaps you would have been as they were during the battle,” she allowed. “But
I have seen you not at battle and I have seen many of your countrymen also at their leisure. You are not like them,”
she said with gentle insistence. “Perhaps it is you that needs to think better of yourself.”
She sat beside the stream that ran across the back of the farm, trying to enjoy the summer breezes that kissed
her face. The dark-haired, blue-eyed infant suckling greedily at her breast was well-formed and strong. With luck, he would
reach manhood. Her three older children were nearby within her sight, but presently in the care of their judicious grandmother
and two of the servants. She had been fortunate with her children. She had borne five, counting the babe at her breast. All
but one had lived.
Fortune had favored her, too, with her adoptive family. His mother had been her champion from the beginning
and his brothers required little convincing. But his choice to remove her collar and hand her freedom over without question
of her paying the redemption price had not, at first, been well received by his sisters. It wasn’t so much the act itself,
as it was his treatment of her, a foreign-born slave, as if she were one of their own. Over time though, all but the eldest
had become a friend of sorts, and even that one had said kind things to her at the funeral.
Despite her loss, she had to remind herself she had been luckiest of all in love. They had been granted eleven
years together, more than many received. But she had happened to love a warrior, and he had lived and died a warrior. It was
the kind of death his culture expected and even what he had hoped for. She knew it was wrong of her to wish him back at her
side, to live a long life and die of old age in bed. That kind of death would have been anathema to everything he believed,
but still she wished it. She wished at least he might have lived to see his last son, the one who of them all, looked most
like him. But it was not to be.
He never had mastered her name. Eventually it became a joke between them and she would tease him when he tried
it. He had settled instead on calling her Svassa. In his tongue it meant simply ‘beloved’.